- Acts 9:1-6, (7-20) and Psalm 30
- Rev 5:11-14
- John 21:1-19
Acts 9: Paul’s encounter with the Risen Lord
In 1Cor 15 we see that Paul includes himself among those to whom Jesus had appeared:
Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.
(1Cor 15:1-11 NRSV)
We have another—and perhaps slightly earlier—reference to his encounter with the risen Christ, together with a fervent insistence that there were no human agents involved in his calling by Christ, in Galatians:
Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— and all the members of God’s family who are with me,
To the churches of Galatia:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. …
For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.
(Gal 1:1-5,11-17 NRSV)
Paul does not elaborate on that appearance in his surviving letters, although it is possible that the following passage in 2Cor 12 is a thinly veiled account of one such mystical experience that Paul understood to be an encounter with the living Christ:
It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
I have been a fool! You forced me to it. Indeed you should have been the ones commending me, for I am not at all inferior to these super-apostles, even though I am nothing. The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, signs and wonders and mighty works. How have you been worse off than the other churches, except that I myself did not burden you? Forgive me this wrong!
(2Cor 12:1-13 NRSV)
Note that this revelation is recounted in the context of a conflict over Paul’s status as an apostle, and especially his parity with some other group of apostles; dismissed by Paul as “super-apostles” (Greek: tōn uperlian apostolōn).
Although Luke is not averse to deleting material he considered redundant, in the Acts of Apostles he tells the story of Paul’s “conversion” three times over:
- Acts 9:1-20
- Acts 22:1-21
- Acts 26:1-20
These stories differ slightly—but significantly—from one another. As the story is told and retold it moves from a legend about his conversion (featuring human agents such as Ananias) to which Paul would most likely have objected strongly to a version that fits more closely with Paul’s own assertion that his apostleship and his understanding of the gospel came directly from the risen Lord and not through any human agency. Was the author of Acts deliberately modifying a well-known legend about Paul and gradually softening it to the point where even Paul would have been happy with the representation of his encounter/call in Acts 26?
Worthy is the Lamb that was slain
The second reading offers a vision of the heavenly court in a moment of worship:
Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice,
“Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing,
“To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might
forever and ever!”
And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the elders fell down and worshiped.
(Rev 5:11-14 NRSV)
Here we have a snapshot that reveals how some 1C Christians imagined heaven to be, including devotion to Jesus as a divine Lord alongside God. There is no carefully articulated trinitarian theology here, but a simple assertion that Jesus is now with God and worthy to be worshipped in ways that traditional Jews would only have directed to God. This imaging of the risen One is not concerned about the fate of Jesus’ bones, but does celebrate his new authority as the one worthy to be worshipped by all of creation—and who would “soon” come as judge of all.
Lakeside in Galilee
For the Third Sunday of Easter, the major western lectionaries all draw on the Johannine story of the lakeside appearance in Galilee. The RCL adds the following episode where Peter’s love for Jesus and his commissioning as an apostle is renewed (vss 15-19).
The scene is idyllic, and preserves some authentic memories of time spent with Jesus and his followers in Galilee. The cast is more selective than we might have anticipated but reflects characters known from earlier in GJohn:
- Simon Peter
- Thomas the Twin
- Nathanael of Cana in Galilee
- the sons of Zebedee (ie, James and John)
- two other unnamed disciples
The incident recounted seems very similar to the story in Luke 5:
4When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” 5Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” 6When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” 9For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 11When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
John P. Meier
The observations of John P. Meier, also relevant when the Luke passage is used for Epiphany 5C, are worth noting at this point. Meier considers this miracle story as part of his extensive discussion of Jesus’ miracles in volume two of A Marginal Jew. He notes the following features that suggest the same story underlies the two accounts:
1. A group of fishermen, among whom Peter is the chief actor, has spent the night fishing but has caught nothing (Luke 5:2-5; John 21:2-5). Now daylight has come, and Jesus is on the scene.
2. With apparently supernatural knowledge, Jesus directs Peter and his colleagues to cast their nets into the water once again, with the explicit (John) or implicit (Luke) promise that now they will have success …
3. Peter and his colleagues trust and obey Jesus’ command, with the result that many fish are caught …
4. The effect of the large number of fish on the nets is mentioned …in spite of the extraordinary number of fish, and contrary to what one might expect, the nets are not torn …
5. Peter is the only named disciple who reacts in a dramatic fashion to the miraculous event …
6. In the third-person narrative in which the author directly speaks to his audience, Jesus (even the risen Jesus of John’s narrative) is referred to simply as “Jesus”; Peter and Peter alone addresses Jesus as “Lord” …
7. The other fishermen share in the action of catching the fish … but neither on sea nor on land do they (apart from the beloved disciple in John 21:15-17) say anything once the miracle begins.
8. At the end of each story, Jesus directly or indirectly issues a summons to Peter to follow him …
9. The abundant catch of fish symbolizes in each story the future missionary work and the resultant success of Peter and the other disciples. A further idea symbolized in each story is that the disciples, left to themselves in the night of this world, are doomed to failure. With Jesus’ help and direction, they are granted startling success.
10. The same Greek words are used for many verbs and nouns in the two stories … since both stories are concerned with fishing, some of the agreements may be coincidental.
11. In both stories, at the moment when he reacts to the miraculous catch, Peter is referred to as “Simon Peter” … This point is especially remarkable because this is the only time in the Third Gospel that Luke uses the double name, while it is the regular way in which the redactor refers to Peter in John 21:1-14.
If in fact we have two versions of the same story, which Gospel is closest to the original form? Meier concludes that John’s setting of the story as a post-Easter resurrection appearance to Simon Peter is the earlier form of the story, and that Luke reflects the well-attested phenomenon of stories/sayings moving from a post-Easter setting to one during the lifetime of Jesus:
… behind Luke 5;1-11 || John 21:1-17 we may have some remnants of a primitive tradition narrating the initial resurrection appearance of Jesus, i.e., the appearance granted to Peter. The appearance to Peter is highlighted in one of the earliest Christian creeds we posses (1 Cor 15:3-5) and is also mentioned in Luke 24:34. Yet, while we have stories of appearances of Jesus to Mary Magdalene, to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and to the group of eleven disciples (the Twelve minus Judas), we have no full story of what 1 Cor 15:5 claims was the first of all appearances, the appearance to “Cephas” (= Peter).
If Meier is correct, and this story preserves a memory of the original appearance to Peter, that may account for the significance of the story and its use alongside the renewal of Peter’s apostleship in the Johannne appendix (ch 21).
John Shelby Spong
John Shelby Spong has also argued for the significance of this episode in John 21. In Resurrection: Myth or Reality? (1994: 191-97), Spong notes the disconnect between chapters 20 and 21 of GJohn, and yet also appreciates the Johannine characteristics of this appendix:
Chapter 21 is set in Galilee, while chapter 20 is set in Jerusalem. … Moreover, the behavior of the disciples in chapter 21 makes little or no sense if we see it as a sequel to events in chapter 20. It reads as if those events had no impact. Despite two appearances to the disciples in chapter 20, one without Thomas and one with him, where the risen Christ breathed on them to impart the Holy Spirit, and where Jesus confronted Thomas with the invitation to touch his wounds … the disciples in John 21 were strangely unmoved. Even Thomas’ cry of faith, “My Lord and my God!” had not served to put any particular new energy into Thomas’s life. What we have here is a strange placement of a text that contains key insights and probably primitive traditions.
Spong suggests that the various Gospel narratives that are closely associated with the lake must be read together, if we are to recover the symbolic meaning of these stories to the early Christians. These stories include the stilling of the storm and Peter walking on the water to join Jesus. Apart from Luke, the Gospels associate the miraculous crossing of the lake with the miracle of the loaves and fish. Spong summarizes:
There are similar themes in all the stories, even beyond the lakeside setting. All of them reflected a traditional messianic symbol of mastery over water, including the ability to calm the waves and to walk on the sea or through it. These stories also seem to have some connection with food, and Peter plays either a cryptic or an overt role in each of these accounts.
Spong mentions biblical texts such as Job 9:8 and Isaiah 43:2,16, before citing the extended passage in Isaiah 51:10-15:
10Was it not you who dried up the sea,
the waters of the great deep;
who made the depths of the sea a way
for the redeemed to cross over?
11So the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
12I, I am he who comforts you;
why then are you afraid of a mere mortal who must die,
a human being who fades like grass?
13You have forgotten the Lord, your Maker,
who stretched out the heavens
and laid the foundations of the earth.
You fear continually all day long
because of the fury of the oppressor,
who is bent on destruction.
But where is the fury of the oppressor?
14The oppressed shall speedily be released;
they shall not die and go down to the Pit,
nor shall they lack bread.
15For I am the Lord your God,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar–
the Lord of hosts is his name.
He comments on this evocative passage:
Given the midrash tradition of searching the Scriptures to interpret God’s action in the present, this passage is quite likely to have been used by early Christians to shed light on Jesus of Nazareth. Mastery over the sea, bread that does not fail, the Son of man who is made like grass, that is, one who can actually die yet one who does not go down into the Pit — all are symbolic phrases far too familiar in the telling of the Christ story to be coincidental.
A little later, Spong offers this reconstruction of the primary Easter event, the appearance to Simon Peter:
Somewhere in the dark recesses of time after the earthly life of Jesus had ended, and some forty to seventy years before the writing of the Gospels was undertaken, the event occurred that created the Christian movement.
The details were, and still are, sketchy — “The crucified one lives” was the heart of their message. Scrape the veneer off their stories and we come to the probability that the moment that convinced them of this truth occurred in Galilee and that Simon was the primary person in whom this truth first dawned. Because of that, Simon became known as the the rock upon which the Christian faith rested, and so the nicknames Cephas, Peter, Rock, were attached to him. When he turned, he strengthened his brethren. When he stopped denying he was reborn. When he ceased to doubt, he no longer sank into the waters of despair. Jesus appeared first to Cephas.
Bethsaida: A fishing village by the Sea of Galilee
Bethsaida was one of several fishing villages at the northern end of the Sea of Galilee that feature in the NT stories about Jesus. It seems to have been the home village of Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, as well as Philip. Along with Chorazim, Bethsaida would be the subject of a prophetic denunciation by Jesus:
Woe to you, Chorazin!
Woe to you, Bethsaida!
For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon,
they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. [Luke 10:13 = Matt 11:21]
Other lakeside fishing villages that feature in the Gospel stories include Capernaum and Magdala, the home village of Mary Magdalene.
For further information about the archaeological excavations underway at Bethsaids, see Bethsaida Then and Now.
- 190 Fishing for Humans – vss. 1-8
- 003 Bread and Fish – vss. 9,12-13
- 006 Revealed to Peter – vss. 15-23
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site
Other recommended sites include:
- A man there lived in Galilee – AHB 176
- Abide with me – AHB 502
- Alleluia (Richard Bruxvoort)
- Once to every man and nation – AHB 499
- The day of resurrection – AHB 277
See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.